REDMOND, Wash. — June 18, 2009 — For two teams of students – one in Africa, the other in India – technology is a tool for improving the lives of real people.
In Africa, a group of four students have reached the finals of the prestigious Imagine Cup, Microsoft’s annual global student technology competition, by designing mobile-telephone software that can help poor farmers get a better price for their goods. In India, another team that also has reached the finals did so by developing a way to teach youngsters how to avoid malaria.
Trailblazers team: Praveen Shekhar, Navkar Samdaria, Mohit Jain, Aakar Gupta.
Both are examples of the ingenuity of young people around the world, and of their interest in creating better lives for those around them. And they’re but two examples of the work performed by more than 100 teams of high school and college students competing at the 2009 Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals, held July 3–7 in Cairo, Egypt. Now in its seventh year, the Imagine Cup demonstrates how creativity and innovation can help solve the world’s toughest problems. This year, each team is developing a solution aligned with one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which address issues such as education, poverty and hunger, and child healthcare
In India, the students traveling to Cairo are Aakar Gupta, Mohit Jain, Navkar Samdaria and Praveen Shekhar – members of Team Trailblazers – are seniors at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in the state of Gujarat on India’s west coast. Their African counterparts, competing under the name development++, are Kibet Seth Kigen, Kaizzi Joseph Kasolo, Acellam Guy, and Okori Ivan.
Trailblazers: Blazing the Trail for Better Education in Rural India
Team Trailblazer’s project is the culmination of several months spent in rural classrooms, assessing the needs of students there while developing DISHA (Disease and Health Awareness), an educational game leveraging MultiPoint technology that provides public health information about malaria to children in low-income areas of India.
Development++ team: Kibet Seth Kigen, Kaizzi Joseph Kasolo, Acellam Guy, Okori Ivan.
Over the past 20 years, the government of India has made a concerted effort to provide a universal education for all its children. This program, known as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), is one of the largest of its kind in the world and is responsible for bringing roughly 20 million children into Indian schools. Yet the World Bank estimates that roughly 10 million primary-aged children in India are still unschooled. The need is especially dire among rural communities — mostly because of cultural barriers, a lack of money and ineffective programs.
“There’s a wide gap between the schooling offered in rural areas and the semiurban or urban areas, primarily due to a lack of resources,” Gupta says. “For example, in rural schools that have computers, three to five children may sit at each computer, and that creates a problem because the children who don’t have control of the mouse gradually lose interest.”
Early on, the team asked students about what they enjoyed when using a computer. Not surprisingly, the initial response was that they liked to play games. But further discussion revealed that the children also enjoyed using the mouse. This insight gave Gupta and his colleagues the direction they needed to start their project.
Using a handful of technologies such as the Microsoft MultiPoint Software Development Kit (SDK), Microsoft Expression Blend, Visual Studio 2008 and C#, they created an educational game that teaches kids about the spread, symptoms and prevention of malaria, all while keeping several students playing at once.
Gupta says the team quickly learned that good development required precision.
“We had to design a user interface for students and immediately test it on the children to see whether they understood the objectives,” he says. “And then we had to test it and modify it, so it was a really iterative process. You never get it right the first time, especially when you’re developing [applications] for kids.”
e-Farmer provides access to relevant agricultural information, prevailing market prices, online produce auctioning, weather forecasts and expert advice via SMS messaging on virtually any mobile phone.
After initial testing, the Trailblazers successfully revised the program with learnings from their results — a subsequent round of testing revealed that the students’ awareness about various malaria symptoms had increased by 65 percent, and they were more engaged overall.
The results of their work were so impressive that in addition to earning a spot as Imagine Cup finalists, Team Trailblazer won the Unlimited Potential MultiPoint Education Award for the 2009 Imagine Cup. The award recognizes efforts to helps developers create educational applications that affordably increase the reach of existing classroom computers.
Microsoft Unlimited Potential, the company’s initiative to expand the benefits of technology to underserved communities, is now in its second year of supporting the Imagine Cup. According to Amit Mital, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group, the focus of this year’s competition complements Unlimited Potential’s goal.
Says Mital: “Ultimately, the goal of Imagine Cup is to empower students and encourage entrepreneurial businesses to improve the world we live in by utilizing the power of software and technology innovation. Their creativity and innovation demonstrates how technology can make a difference in peoples’ lives in the way we think, work and communicate.”
Microsoft Unlimited Potential has also now announced the five finalist teams for the Unlimited Potential Design for Development Award – among them team development++ from Uganda, which won the top prize in that category.
Development++: Improving Rural Farming in Africa
That team had an obvious choice for their Imagine Cup project, says development++ member Kaizzi “Joseph” Kasolo. “In Uganda, everyone has their roots in agriculture,” he says. “However prosperous you are, it always traces back to agriculture.” Joseph says that most families, whether raising livestock or crops, are involved in farming either on the side or as their full-time job.
The 2009 Imagine Cup is the second time around for development++ and their e-Farmer application. According to Joseph, last year the team had inadequate time to prepare, but this year they collected extensive user research, a required component for this year’s Unlimited Potential Design for Development Award. Joseph and his colleagues interviewed farmers, conducted focus groups, observed farming practices and, in some cases, helped around farms.
Ninety percent of rural Uganda’s population makes their living from growing crops or raising livestock. But many farmers in Uganda, and most of East Africa, are forced to sell their crops at prices much lower than the prevailing market rate, leaving them in a constant state of poverty.
“What stood out was how much the rural farmers were being ripped off,” says Joseph. “They have no knowledge whatsoever of the prevailing market prices out there, so when the middlemen go deep into the villages, they buy the produce at ridiculous prices. And the farmers are really helpless because they don’t have storage facilities, and they can’t keep the crops around once they are harvested because they will go bad.”
The team also noticed a prevalence of cheap cell phones in their research. Even the poorest farmers had a cell phone they would use for calls as well as basic calculations. With this information, the team created e-Farmer, a tool based on short message service (SMS) that will give farmers greater access to prevailing market prices and open the door to a broader marketplace through produce auctioning. E-Farmer also enables farmers to get weather forecasts and seek expert advice on day-to-day agricultural questions — all via SMS on virtually any mobile phone.
Development++ created e-Farmer using a variety of technologies and Microsoft products including SQL Server 2008, SMS Server Software Development Kit (SDK), Visual Studio 2008 Team System Edition, Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation. By the time they arrive in Cairo, the team hopes to add an interactive voice response feature (IVR) via Microsoft Speech Server that makes it easier for farmers to access information.
Networking With Tomorrow’s Technology and Business Leaders
While in Cairo, Joseph and Aakar are both looking forward to mingling with the other competitors and getting inspired for the future.
Says Joseph: “The 2008 Imagine Cup — especially the worldwide finals in Paris — was really an eye-opener because it was amazing to see how everyone took the competition so seriously. I look forward to meeting the other competitors and people [in Cairo] who will ultimately be IT leaders of tomorrow.”
Team Trailblazers is now focused on the next stage of deploying DISHA. With the Unlimited Potential MultiPoint Education Award under their belts, they will use the trip to Egypt as an opportunity to showcase their technology. The team is localizing the application across the 15 or 16 languages spoken in India, and have begun discussions with a national organization aimed at improving Indian elementary education.
“The user research we went through was a real eye-opener because we’d never really seen the grass-roots problems that existed,” says Aakar. “Now that we’ve done something, there’s a sense of satisfaction, but the work isn’t over yet. We need to continue it and deploy it on a mass scale to see some results.”
For Aakar, this may mean a change in his career plans. Although he had originally intended to pursue a master’s of science at Georgia Tech, the Imagine Cup has had such an impact on him that he’s now considering whether to pursue the field of computer interaction. The team’s next steps include discussing DISHA with local NGOs and continuing the localization process; they also hope to expand DISHA to include other diseases and deploy a complete health package in India, as well as on the international level.
It just goes to show that combining imagination and the power of technology can lead to ideas with unlimited potential.